This week: why the Jets should pursue upgrades for championship push, whether the Oilers could use a meaner coach, and more.
Wow. I should take three weeks away from the Ask Me Anything Mailbag every time. You folks came out in droves not only with many questions, but many good questions. I wish there was time to answer more. Thanks for being so thoughtful. And just know my selection is fairly random – based on mood and what I feel I can answer the best. So don’t give up if I haven’t picked one of your questions yet. With the midway point of the season come lots of trade-related questions, so that’s the most common theme in this week’s mailbag.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year.
Chris Topher (@SezChris) asks…
Would the Oilers benefit from a tougher coach like Darryl Sutter or ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan hurting some feelings and installing some work ethic?
Yes, at least in the short term. I wouldn’t say Todd McLellan is known as a player’s coach, but I also wouldn’t call him a notorious taskmaster. Keenan is a famous example, of course, and the most prominent recent ones are Sutter, John Tortorella and arguably Ken Hitchcock.
The pattern with those bench bosses is pretty common: they often help elevate young stars’ games to new levels of discipline and success in the early going. Sutter’s Kings transformed into puck-possession juggernauts instantly in 2011-12 and played the big, heavy forecheck system to almost robotic success for several seasons. We saw the likes of Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko round out their games under Hitchcock, who also taught Mike Modano to be a two-way player and a much more effective overall player in Dallas. And Tortorella, of course, is known for putting his players through punishing pre-season training. The likes of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are horses with big gas tanks largely thanks to the workouts ‘Torts’ conducts. The Blue Jackets’ players are all in tremendous shape – even goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen told me last year that ‘Bob’ was the first and last guy in the gym every day.
So yes, a taskmaster coach can jolt a young team, and the Oilers seem ripe for such a change. They’ve had a maddening pattern this season of raising fans’ hopes with a win only to seemingly sit back and get complacent again the next game. The only caveat about bringing in a disciplinarian is that that type of philosophy tends to have the shortest shelf life. It can win over the players, but if the team starts losing within a couple seasons, suddenly all that yelling becomes grating, and it’s common to see that type of coach lose the room quickly – most commonly the extreme examples like Keenan and Torts. Sutter lasted more than half a decade with the Kings, but as Drew Doughty told me last summer, by the end of the tenure he felt he couldn’t approach Sutter and just speak to him man to man. That type of coach can eventually alienate himself.
But in the short term? Heck yes, Chris. I think that type of change would be a welcome splash of cold water on the young Oilers’ faces.
Richard Liebrecht (@rwliebrecht) asks…
Could the Jets be buyers? If so, who would be a good fit?
Hey Richard. Yes, the Jets could be buyers, and they really need to be. Our Future Watch panel of scouts and GMs from around the NHL has ranked the Jets’ developmental crop – all their players 21 or younger, NHL or not – as the NHL’s best two of the past three seasons. In other words, Winnipeg doesn’t need to amass any more prospects. The Jets are already building around the young core of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Jacob Trouba and Connor Hellebuyck. Now Kyle Connor and Josh Morrissey have become fixtures, too. Jack Roslovic’s time is upon us, and the Jets have a Zdeno Chara-esque blueline prospect out there in hulking Logan Stanley, too. Add in mega-impact veterans like Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien and you have a seriously talented and deep team.
It took a while for the Jets to rise up, but that doesn’t mean their current standing of second in the Central with two games in hand on the Blues and just a point back is a fluke. Heck, we declared Winnipeg the 2019 Stanley Cup champion a while back. This team was supposed to become this good. And because it doesn’t need to add any more prospects via the draft, that means GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, at least in theory, can dangle his future assets to seller teams at the trade deadline. He has all his first- and second-round picks available over the next three seasons.
As for what the Jets need: well, with Scheifele’s long-term injury, Wheeler is forced to play center. It’s commendable that he’s doing it, but it’s not ideal, and it exposes the Jets’ lack of high-skill depth at the position right now. Adam Lowry has been pretty decent, but on a true contender team, it would be great to have him as your No. 4 pivot. To me, the perfect trade target would be a veteran forward who can (a) plug a temporary hole at center on a first, second or third line and (b) kill penalties, as while Winnipeg’s power play has made tremendous strides this season, its penalty kill is mediocre. In terms of player type, the dream fit in my mind is a Ryan O’Reilly type. You probably don’t specifically want him, since he carries a $7.5-million cap hit through 2022-23, but that’s the style I’d seek if I were Cheveldayoff.
In terms of more realistic rental types: Antoine Vermette if the Ducks drop out of the race? Mark Letestu? That feels like aiming too low. It sounds insane, but I wonder if the trainwreck Ottawa Senators would consider cutting their losses on Matt Duchene. Can you imagine?! Or maybe Frans Nielsen makes sense if Detroit eats some of his salary.
I’m not saying Chevy is actively pursuing any of those names – just that they’re the kinds of players I’d be seeking if I were him: two-way swingman centers.
Jeff Hooper (@jeffhooper44) asks…
Who do you think Pittsburgh will trade for, and who will they give up?
This is a good topic to discuss because we know a trade will happen. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is one of the most aggressive GMs in the league on the trade market, surpassed only perhaps by David Poile. Key pieces acquired by Rutherford via trade since taking the Penguins job in 2014 include Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, Ian Cole, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and Ron Hainsey. Even after winning two straight Stanley Cups, Rutherford was infuriated with how his players were getting pushed around, so he haphazardly surrendered a first-rounder to get Ryan Reaves.
So we should expect major waves now as the Penguins sputter around the playoff bubble. There’s no turning back, as the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Kessel only have so many prime years left. The Penguins don’t have a particularly strong farm crop at the moment, either. Now’s the time to keep the foot on the gas and do whatever it takes to keep winning Cups until the window closes.
It’s no secret the Penguins miss Bonino and Matt Cullen. The Riley Sheahan trade wasn’t enough to fix the problem this team has at center. Rutherford needs to make a higher-profile acquisition. As the Pens, having played a ton of hockey over the past two seasons, endure injuries to wingers such as Bryan Rust, it seems they could use help at every forward position.
The obvious piece to dangle is blueliner Cole, who is unhappy and has been scratched multiple times this year. The Penguins are openly, actively shopping him, so it’s almost a given he’ll be part of a trade for a forward, especially after the Pens solidified some depth by trading for Jamie Oleksiak. If I’m Rutherford, I’m willing to go for broke and offer this year’s first-round pick. Maybe even prospect Daniel Sprong, too, if it lands me a star. Why not? This team can still three-peat with the right upgrades.
I’d expect the Pens to kick the tires on virtually every forward we’ve seen in the rumor mill. For center help: Tyler Bozak or Derick Brassard, perhaps. On the wings: Anthony Duclair or Evander Kane or Andreas Athanasiou or Mike Hoffman. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see the Pens chase a true blockbuster to acquire a game-changing piece like Max Pacioretty. No deal should be off the table.
Hopefully I’m not being too vague in answering your question, Jeff. My point is: expect Rutherford to be in on pretty much any skill forward available, with particular focus on securing a third-line center. I believe the Pens strike a deal soon – and that by March they’ll have multiple new faces on their roster. And by the way: I fully expect Letang to remain a Penguin. Per Josh Yohe, a trusted Pittsburgh beat reporter, sources in the organization have “zero interest” in moving their top D-man, injury history and all.
Ralph Wigumn (@ralph_wiggumn) asks…
Is the success of the Vegas Golden Knights ultimately going to hinder a long-term build (no lottery pick, keeping expiring assets, etc.)? Will they buy or sell at the trade deadline?
I choo-choo-choose your question, Ralph, because it’s a great one. Yes, the Golden Knights’ success is totally messing with what I thought was going to be a tank-style rebuild. The Golden Knights absolutely aced their first entry draft, picking 12 times and nabbing three promising first rounders in Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom. They currently boast seven picks in 2017, 12 in 2018 and nine in 2019. The assumption here was they’d be the worst team in the league and contend for picking Rasmus Dahlin first overall or a guy like Andrei Svechnikov if they didn’t win the No. 1 overall pick.
So yeah, right now it appears Vegas’ top pick will come late in the first round, so the mega rebuild isn’t going to play out as planned. Not that owner Bill Foley or GM George McPhee or any new Golden Knights fan should be complaining. The season isn’t just a wild, historic success because the team is winning so much – it’s also about who is contributing to the winning. This isn’t an expansion squad full of 35-year-olds having late-career resurgences. No, coach Gerard Gallant has helped unlock tremendous upside in some still-young players. Blossoming goal scorer William Karlsson is only 24. Erik Haula is 26. Puck-moving blueliners Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore are 26 and 22, respectively. Freshly re-signed top scorer Jonathan Marchessault is 27. Reilly Smith is 26. Post-hype breakout goalie Malcolm Subban is 24. Even pending UFA James Neal is hardly ancient at 30.
The point: it’s OK that these guys are doing great, because they’re young enough that McPhee can legitimately build around them. The team can get even better when the likes of Glass and Suzuki join the fold.
That said, should they be aggressive buyers at the trade deadline? I’m not so sure. They still have a lot of pending UFAs, including Neal, David Perron and Luca Sbisa, and if those guys walk in the off-season, the Golden Knights likely take a step back in 2017-18. It would be risky for a team that still doesn’t even have enough players in its farm system to stock a full AHL affiliate to start dealing away draft picks. To me, the best course of action for McPhee would be to stand pat. Don’t trade away your expiring deals – this team is too good and looks ready to be a playoff threat – but don’t surrender futures, either. Just keep riding this wave. If McPhee decides he just has to make an upgrade, maybe he coughs up one of his three 2019 second-rounders in pursuit of a big-minute defenseman like Mike Green. Fair enough, but I wouldn’t do much more than that.
Mike Rotondo (@rotondo316) asks…
What are the Toronto Maple Leafs missing to win a Cup this year?
The obvious missing piece discussed all year is, of course, a top-four, right-shot defenseman who plays a shutdown style. I’m not talking about a lumbering, throwback blunt instrument in the mold of Roman Polak. I mean the modern incarnation of a shutdown guy – one who can lay the body but can also keep up with opposing attackers via mobility and positioning. The Leafs swung and missed on Travis Hamonic in the off-season, (though maybe that turned out to be a good thing), so it’s clear GM Lou Lamoriello understood his team’s glaring need.
Halfway through the season, it’s still clear the Leafs must become tougher to play against. With all their skill and scoring depth, it’s no surprise to see them fifth in goals per game and sixth in power play percentage. But the Leafs allow the third-most shots per game and the fourth-most shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. They continue to bleed scoring chances and can’t become a true Stanley Cup contender until they remedy that problem.
So yes, it starts with that shutdown D-man. Josh Manson would’ve been a dream fit but signed an extension with the Anaheim Ducks this summer. Jacob Trouba wanted a trade out of Winnipeg a year ago but is now entrenched there, logging 22 minutes a night on one of the Western Conference’s best teams.
So, to me, the Leafs’ target should be Chris Tanev of the Vancouver Canucks. He has decent enough size at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, he makes his living against opposing teams’ best players, and he even has two more seasons left after this one at a reasonable cap hit of $4.45 million. The Canucks could keep him part of their plans, of course, but they’re rebuilding, and by the time his contract ends he’ll be (a) 30 and (b) likely ready for a raise. The return for Tanev would be bigger now than later since he’s under team control for multiple seasons – look what Colorado got for Duchene! – so there’s merit to the idea of Vancouver shopping its top D-man now.
The Leafs’ starting lineup and farm system are deep enough that they can spare some prospects as they enter a contention window. If it costs, say, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and a first-round pick to get Tanev, it’s probably worth it.
And if that type of deal is too rich for Toronto’s blood, maybe it pursues Niklas Hjalmarsson in Arizona. He’s a tank who plays the right side even though he shoots left, blocks shots with aplomb and has a big-time playoff pedigree having played tough minutes on all three Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks teams this decade.
I also think the Leafs miss what Brian Boyle brought as a physical checking center last season. Frederik Gauthier could become that but isn’t quite ready for full-time work yet. Maybe Lamoriello seeks an upgrade similar to last year’s, then.